Myanmar: In the Shadows of the Thai-Burma Border: East Asia's Foremost Refugee Crisis


Dr Hazel Lang

Thailand is host to the largest protracted refugee situation in East Asia and until recently it appeared that the Burmese refugees would remain indefinitely 'warehoused' in camps, with little or no prospect for permanent and durable solutions to their plight. However, a new large-scale multilateral resettlement program is now gathering momentum as thousands of refugees apply for resettlement and prepare to depart for a completely new life in third countries. This is an exciting opportunity for those individuals and families selected for resettlement, putting an end to a life of indefinite limbo - the camps were first established in 1984 - but what role does resettlement play in resolving the overall Burmese predicament?

Since resettlement opened up as a possibility for residents in the border camps in 2005, more than 49,000 refugees from the nine main camps have indicated to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) their desire to resettle in a third country. This represents a significant proportion of the 143,000 mainly ethnic Karen and Karenni refugees formally registered by the UNHCR at present. The US is undertaking mass resettlement program, with an expected intake for 2007 of 20,000 refugees, mostly from the border's largest camp Mae La in Tak Province. Other host countries are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, the UK, Sweden, and the Netherlands with resettlement expected to continue for several years.

This high level of initial interest in resettlement reflects the experience of prolonged encampment in Thailand and the inability of refugees to safely return to their homelands in eastern Burma. After 23 years of limbo in Thailand, a whole new generation has grown up confined within camps and people are naturally hopeful and curious about the opportunities for life in a third country. As in other protracted refugee situations around the world, prolonged encampment produces considerable psycho-social stresses and reinforces a sense of hopelessness about future possibilities. Today a new mood of 'resettlement fever' pervades the camps, generating feelings of hope, anticipation but also concerns about separation from community and homeland. As the UNHCR reminds the Burmese refugees in its information brochure for refugees, resettlement is a 'permanent solution'.

Resettlement to a third country is one of the three internationally defined 'durable solutions' for refugees. It is often considered an option of last resort, particularly in the face of restrictive asylum policies in the West. Of the other two durable solutions, voluntary repatriation to the country of origin and local integration into the country of first asylum, repatriation is the preferred option. But for the Burmese refugees in Thailand, repatriation is not viable due to insecurity and violence continuing in eastern Burma and Thailand remains unwilling to facilitate local integration in the form of legal status and residency rights. Sometimes resettlement can play a positive role in opening up possibilities to improve local conditions for the remaining refugees, such as in areas of livelihood and education. Thailand has already indicated in-principle agreements in that direction.

Until recently - before resettlement became an option on the border - the refugees had a long-standing dream of returning home. Their leaders, including the leaders of one of the world's longest-running civil conflicts (the Karen National Union began armed struggle in 1947), do not want to give up on their struggle. The civilians displaced in this war have been caught in the midst of intractable violence and have suffered the brunt of the conflict. The event of resettlement marks a break from the long-held dream of return home.

Resettlement also presents other dilemmas, such as the short- and intermediate impacts on the remaining camp populations. Some camps are already grappling with the impact of the departure of disproportionate numbers of the most educated, skilled and experienced staff from camp services, programs and leadership. All stakeholders report concerns about the loss of these skilled staff, especially from the key sectors of health, education and camp administration, the pressure this puts on programs and the likely negative impacts on the quality of services to refugees. In several camps, for example, half of the medics are scheduled to depart for resettlement, presenting short-term problems for health programs struggling to keep up with training of replacements as well as longer-term concerns about finding sufficient staff from an already limited pool of the educated and skilled camp-based population.

Finally, whilst resettlement provides people with hope for a new life abroad it does not contribute to enduring solutions in the form of a permanent resolution of the underlying causes of displacement across in Burma's eastern borderlands, where an estimated further 500,000 people are internally displaced. Every month hundreds of new arrivals cross the Thai border seeking refuge. Thus in approaching truly sustainable solutions, we cannot isolate the refugees in the Thai border camps from the wider context continuing to cause displacement of communities.

WATCHPOINT: Along with efforts by the international community in supporting resettlement and contributing resources for the remaining population, it is also necessary, given the source of the refugee moment into Thailand, to continue to advocate for positive change and address the underlying cause of protracted conflict in Burma.


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